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Set Number: #6 - February 2007
Guitar Guru: Troy Stetina

Question: Hey Troy, Speed Mechanics was ace i still use it. One thing that's been bugging me for a while though is the best method for picking. Everyone seems to have a different idea of what is best, some say pick with the wrist, some use their fingers more. Some people rest their pinky on a pickup/string others don't. What do you do? Most people say do whatever feels natural, but i'm having a lot of problems developing my alternate picking because i just cant get a great economy of motion. any tips would be great, thanks a lot for taking questions. Anon

Guitar Guru: My pleasure. I’m glad to hear you like the book! The main thing about picking is to get it down to a very small, controlled motion. You want to be just on the tip of the pick, like 1mm. You want to be able to feel exactly where it is relative to the string. So maybe start out putting the tip of the pick against the string and just brush over it until the string actually slips out of the way. At that moment your pick should still be touching the string, but now it’s on the other side of the string. Go slowly back and forth like this. You aren’t actually “picking”… just getting used to feeling the pick slip across the string. Then all you do is allow it to move slightly beyond that restricted range in each direction and suddenly you are picking with the kind of small motion you need for high speed picking. Also, there shouldn’t be any “catching” on either side. Alter the angle and depth of the pick until it smooths out. Then speed up the motion, but keep it very small. Try to tremolo pick within that same restricted space. When that works, you pretty much have it.

Now the main thrust of your question was about the macro-physics of it, like closed fingers vs. open fingers, movement originating from wrist vs. fingers vs. elbow, etc. To me, those are the next step. Focusing on the point of action—the tip of the pick—comes first. If you get that motion working properly, my sense is that the others will probably take care of themselves. That’s why I think you find so many different people using different picking methods, and then we get all the confusion that arises from these conflicting claims. I say, first, focus on the fundamental action. If it works, it works. Period. Looking at it from the macro level down is backwards.

But after we cover the starting point, we can move on to those macro issues. For the fastest stuff, I pick from the wrist, usually with an open hand that “floats”. I don’t like to anchor my little finger. One of the reasons I tend to keep my hand open is because I like the varied texture/tone of using palm mutes and opening the mutes. And the floating position allows me to palm mute at any time. And the open hand allows me to extend the palm mute to the highest strings. Sometimes I may use a closed hand as well, but to me there is no real gain to it. It just doesn’t much matter. I also angle the edge of the pick nearest the neck, downward slightly, so it hits at a slight angle, which helps smooth out the string-crossings..

I don’t use the jazz finger/thumb approach. I guess it can allow some advantages by controlling the exact picking angle (and therefore tone and smoothness), but I’ve never seen anyone use that technique to play really fast. Sure it works for relatively fast picking, but there is a big difference between 16th notes at 144bpm (moderately fast) and at 200bpm (blazing). Since I get all the tone and smoothness I need, and my technique allows me to pick as fast as I’ve cared to pick as well as slower tempos, there is no gain I see in the finger/thumb approach. But then again, I don’t play jazz lines. Maybe if I valued that, I’d see things differently.

Another jazz-inspired idea is the anchoring of the little finger (or several fingers) on the body of the guitar. I guess this can help stabilize things. Mike Batio plays this way a lot, and no one can argue that he sure has amazing picking technique. However, it doesn’t allow for palm muting to be interspersed within runs, which is something I like.

I don’t pick with motion from the elbow, either. I’ve seen players do this and pick very fast, so it can certainly be done. But wrist motion uses smaller muscle mass, so theoretically it should be more efficient. Since eliminating tension is a big part of speed, it seems to me that elbow motion has an inherent disadvantage to it. However, if it works for you, you may be better off continuing with what you do.

So the bottom line is that different approaches produce somewhat different results. There aren’t any true absolutes about right or wrong picking, IMO. For example, most people angle the edge of the pick nearest the neck downward slightly, as I do. But I recall seeing a Shawn Lane video years ago, and he reversed that angle… and picked amazingly fast. There are always exceptions. So if a person is happy with the results they are getting, I would never tell them to go back and “relearn the right way” (translation: do it MY way) That’s just ridiculous dogma, and maybe a little arrogance to boot. I believe in being practical. Focus on the point of action… the tip of the pick… and make that work. Listen to opinions about the other issues if you need the guidance, but realize they are all secondary.

Question: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. I am working my way through SM and it is a really great book! Do you have any advice on how to divide up the content so practice time is spent efficiently? There are so many examples, I'm not sure how tackle them all. For example, would you devote a 1/2 hour per day to chromatics, 1/2 to legato, 1/2 to 3 note/string, etc.? I generally have 4-5 hours per day to practice, and if I'm not careful I end up doing nothing but exercises since there are so many!
Thanks, Matt

Guitar Guru: This is a good question, and a tricky one to answer because the right answer is a bit different for different people. I’m not the kind of person to set a clock and play X minutes on this or that. Might not be a bad idea, though. I’ve just never done it. My approach is more in following inspiration and desire. So if I see the need to increase finger independence, I would work on those exercises for a while until I start to get a reasonable increase in that department, and things start to work better. For people going through Speed Mechanics, I’d recommend they pick one area (or set of examples) to be the “main focus” for a period of days. Each day, maybe spend a short time warming up on a previous page (maybe choose a different warm up for each session). Then hit the main area for a while. How exactly you break it up is entirely up to you. Maybe try some different ideas like you suggested, then see what the results are. If it works for you, well, you can’t argue with success. You’ll know what is working by a feeling of solid progress. Yeah, it can be slow, like watching an hour hand on the clock. But you don’t actually sit there and “watch” your progress. It’s just something you are vaguely aware of in the back of your mind. So I can’t say how many hours on this or that, or WHEN to move on to the next area. I CAN say that if you feel you hit a plateau, it’s time to move on to something else. If you feel you are getting bored with an example, it’s time to move on. If you feel that all that comes to mind when you are sitting down to practice are these exercises, then you have lost the sense of creativity to go outside them, it’s time to move on.

Exercises are powerful tools to selectively hone aspects of technique. But they can easily be overused. When this happens it gradually burns you out, and dries up your creativity. So depending on your level, you may find it’s time to move on in Speed mechanics even though you haven’t reached the level you want. That’s fine. You have improved. Don’t run it into the ground and burn yourself out. Move on and keep new challenges coming. You can always go back and run through the whole process again, rasing the tempos that much higher.

Whatever you do, don’t practice exercises all the time. We get good at what we practice. Practice only exercises and you become good only at playing exercises. We really seek to play music, not exercises. We only use exercises to play music better. Don’t lose sight of that. Playing music also is about momentum and “thinking on your feet”(improve anyway) and feeling in that “zone” of groove. So keep plenty of that in your practice time too, and you’ll keep your creative flow, momentum and inspiration.

Question: Hey Troy, SM is great for my chromatic playing, i still use it, I was wondering since that modes are becoming more popular if you would release a book about how they are constructed and how to use them, also what do you think of Shawn Lane? Scott McGee

Guitar Guru: Glad you asked… I cover the modes and their uses (along with the entire fretboard and structure of music as I see it) in a new book that I just completed called Fretboard Mastery. I’m told the street date for it is March 1st, 2007. It’s sort of a companion to Speed Mechanics in the sense that while SM covers the physical aspects of playing, FM is the whole non-physical structure of understanding what to play. Of course there are a bunch of challenging examples in there, too.

Funny you mentioned Shawn Lane, since I just mentioned him in the first answer above. He was an exceptional fusion player. Among shredders, I find the fusion-rooted guys to be the most interesting these days. Maybe that’s just because it’s further outside my own area of specialization.

Question: Hey Troy, I was just wondering do you have any tips on increasing Aural Skills? I have trouble on tabbing songs that i like and would be awesome if you can give some pointers. Bon

Guitar Guru: My upcoming book, Fretboard Mastery is full of ear training exercises, first and foremost, because you must have a grasp on that to really understand the fretboard in a comprehensive way. So, yeah, part I of that book is one place to start. It contains a gradually expanding frame of reference, and includes a bunch of transcription practice. But it’s not designed to be a “transcribers method.” It only uses the transcription practice for the purpose of developing your ear better. It doesn’t get into recognizing/writing rhythm, or get into the details about written notation so much. But really, developing your ear is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter whether the sounds you hear come from a song (outside your head) or your imagination (inside your head). The process of converting what you hear into both the abstract musical structure as well as the appropriate fretboard patterns for that structure, is the same for both. I’m pretty excited about that book, to tell you the truth. I worked on it, on and off, for over 5 years. And it’s literally packed with info. Of course the true test of it’s value and effectiveness will be when you guys actually use it, and tell me if it really works as I hoped!

Question: I always end up using the same type of technique for example alternate picking, dont need it all the time... how do i change it up from one to another, it seems to be that I go back to what i know and i can do but I want to do more? Anon

Guitar Guru: Stop thinking about the instrument from the point of view of techniques and patterns, and start just listening. Put yourself in the seat of the listener and let that guide you. The more you learn to listen to what you play, the more your own sense of melody will guide you.

For a more specific approach, you could also try cataloging all the different approaches you know, or even the types of licks/runs you play. If there are say, four main different approaches you rely on most, when you notice you’re dwelling too long in one, just make a mental note to jump out of that one and go to #2, or whatever.

Question: Hey Troy, due to the success of instructional dvds such as rock disclipline and speed kills, have you considered doing any dvds yourself, also are there any young guitarists that have caught your eye that is worth checking out? A. Hughes

Guitar Guru: I’ve done 5 DVDs for Hal Leonard… let’s see, Black Sabbath, Modern Rock and Hard Rock signature licks, plus two Beginning Rock videos. I also just recorded 18 short videos for Hal Leonard, to be released as internet downloads later this year. Those include some advanced stuff. I have considered doing a DVD for some of the material in Speed Mechanics, but frankly, there is just so many other things competing for time, that it’s never been a top priority. I’ve got the whole band aspect rolling now (with Second Soul), and that’s a major time commitment.

Question: Hi Troy, a lot of guitar playing is based on soloing these days and most rhythm playing is using powerchords and pedal tones on drop tuning, what advice can you give to learn new chords and can you give any advice on how to use them? David Mendez,

Guitar Guru: Sure, expand the range of style that you listen to. There are 1000s of bands out there these days. I just joined Yahoo Music… for $70 I can listen unlimited to full tracks of over 2 million songs. I just wrote a GuitarOne Shred column on Megadeth, and had to find a bunch of obscure tunes by the various guitarists side projects, and had no trouble at all locating and listening to everything.

I think the main problem is that the old model of radio-station-dominated major labels really restricts what people think of as “significant” music. It’s only the music that those guys think they can best make money on. There is plenty of well done and interesting guitar work out there that you will never hear on the radio.
But my advice specifically would be to start learning some songs that are outside your “known zone.” Quickly, you’ll find new ways of approaching chords. A chord reference book might be nice to look over from time to time, but it won’t help you actually USE the chords. For that, you need to seek out music. You learn only by example and experimentation.

Thanks all, good questions! And good luck to everyone…


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